The Second Annual Nerds Heart YA Tournament for Underrepresented Young Adult Literature is organized this year by Michelle (Galleysmith), Jodie (Book Gazing), Trish (Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin?), and Amy (My Friend Amy).
The central focus of the tournament is diversity. The books competing meet the following criteria:
Were published in 2009
Have received minimum press on blogs
Feature characters, or are penned by authors, who fall within the following categories:
Person(s) of Color (POC)
Lower Socioeconomic Status
I was assigned two books to evaluate and asked to select a favorite between the two. Thus I will present short reviews of each book, compare them, and then indicate which I think is better.
Review of Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli
This story is based on real events in Tallulah, Louisiana in 1899. It is generally well known that the 1890’s saw the rise of anti-black backlash in the American South. But what is not such common knowledge is that at the same time, Italian immigration to the U.S. South gave rise to extreme nativist expression, including lynchings.
As a motivation for the hatred expressed against the Italians, which you will read about in the book, the characters point to two factors. One was the tendency of the Italians to treat blacks the same as whites. This practice might have given blacks “ideas” and simply was not to be tolerated. A second problem was commercial rivalry, because of fears that the Italians would siphon off jobs and income. At the time in which this story takes place, economic insecurity felt by “natives” was worse than usual: the U.S. was experiencing a severe economic depression that began with the Panic of 1893. Only in mid-1897 did recovery begin. Anger, scapegoating, stereotyping, and mob behavior characterized the hardest-hit regions of the country. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, 1665 persons died at the hands of lynch mobs.
In the story, as in the actual event inspiring the book, the incident that ended in tragedy began when the Italian grocers in Tallulah served a black customer prior to waiting on a white one. Napoli is somewhat faithful to using actual historical figures as characters, but adds a 14-year-old boy, Calogero, recently arrived from Sicily, as a narrator, who comes to live with five cousins already in Tallulah. Calogero, or Calo, also acquires a love interest: a young black girl named Patricia, which helps the author illustrate the fragile scaffolding of race relations in the South at that time. Calo doesn’t know much about the nature of racism in the U.S. prior to his arrival; the other characters are constantly educating him. Some of the information comes straightforwardly as lectures by Calo’s white tutor, and some in a slightly more subtle form. For example, when Patricia’s brothers take Calo hunting for alligator at night, he confesses to her his dislike of the gator. Patricia says to Calo:
‘They’s worse things than ‘gators, Calogero. At least a ‘gator stay in the swamp and don’t get you by surprise. When you dealing with a ‘gator, you know who you dealing with.’”
And perhaps this also serves as the best example for one quibble I have with the book: even the “subtle” teaching moments are a little heavy-handed. The plot device of Calogero needing to learn about real life in America results in a lot of preaching about prejudice, race relations, justice (or the lack thereof) and the means of survival as an “other” in such a society. It sometimes feels more like you are in school than fully absorbed in a story.
Nevertheless, once the author’s message is across and she comes to the denouement, the pages fly by, and knock you flat with the ending.
Review of Medina Hill by Trilby Kent
This book grabs your interest right away. With Alligator Bayou, it was a bit slow at first, figuring out who everyone was and what their relationships to each other were.
Medina Hill puts you into the story at once. Dominic, 11, and his sister Marlo, 8, live with their parents in Mudchute, a part of London, in 1935. But times are bad; Dom’s Mum is coughing blood and his dad lost the only job he ever had. Dom’s mother’s brother, Uncle Roo, invites the kids to stay with them for the summer in Cornwall to give their parents time to get back on their feet.
When Dom and Marlo arrive in Cornwall, they find out that there is a caravan of painted wagons parked near their uncle’s house. The caravan houses a group of Travellers, or Romani people (formerly known as Gypsies). [The word Gypsy is no longer considered correct to use. It derives from the word Egyptian, because the Romani were thought to come from Egypt. The term, however, morphed over time to incorporate a host of negative stereotypes, and now the names Travellers or Romani have largely replaced the old term.] Dom gathers that there is a great deal of hostility in the town over the presence of the caravan and of the Romani in their midst.
Dom learns this by absorption rather than by asking questions. He has reacted to all the stress in his life by literally losing his voice: he can’t seem to form words in the presence of anyone outside his immediate family. Marlo does his talking for him, and forms a bond with one of Uncle Roo’s three borders, an aged reverend. Dominic spends his time engrossed in a book he picked up on the way to Cornwall. It tells the tales of Lawrence of Arabia (Thomas Edward Lawrence), who has recently died in a motorbike accident. [Historically Lawrence's death took place on May 19, 1935.] It is a perfect story for a boy of Dominic’s age, and he dreams of being a hero like Lawrence. [The impression in the book Dominic reads is of The Great White Hero who rescues The Benighted Dark People, and the author does nothing to inform the reader that the truth might be otherwise.]
Soon Dominic meets his own dark native in need of a hero: a young, brave, insouciant Romani girl named Sancha. Ultimately Dominic is moved to speak in public, when the situation of the Travellers becomes dire. As a result, Dominic’s new extended family is proud of him, Sancha smiles, and Dominic doesn’t think “Lawrence himself could have been any prouder.”
Later, however, Sancha confronts Dom:
‘Who says we want to be saved, gadjo? We’ve always looked after ourselves. We don’t need your charity.’”
And yet, as it happens, they do. …
Comparison of the Two Books
Both books are coming of age stories that involve groups of another ethnicity subject to the scorn and prejudice of the population with whom they come to live. In both books, the help of white people is necessary to save the ethnic “others” (although in Alligator Bayou, Calo also gets help from blacks and a Native American).
Both of the books trifle with real life events in order to increase sympathy for their stories. In Alligator Bayou, Napoli makes the Sicilians much more pacific and innocent than they were in real life. (If you are interested, you can read about the real story here.) Nothing they did justified what happened to them, but I don’t think teens need the situation limned in black and white rather than shades of gray to identify with the injustice that occurred.
Similarly, in Medina Hill, T.E. Lawrence is portrayed more in keeping with his fabricated self-image than as the lesser player he was in real life. Although the world may not have known the truth about Lawrence at the time this story took place, it may not be such a positive thing to promulgate the view of him as The Great White Prophet who saved the Arabs.
What about the stories themselves?
As I have mentioned, I thought Medina Hill was a better told story. The narration by Dominic seems so appropriate for an eleven year old. I like that he doesn’t seem to know anything he shouldn’t or couldn’t know at that age, no matter how much giving out that knowledge might fill in the reader.
The language in Alligator Bayou is a little more stilted. Combined with the didactic tone throughout, my transition from the real world to the one inside the book was impeded. Nevertheless, by the end, I was thoroughly inside the world of Tallulah. And I would have to say, this world was more interesting than the one of Medina Hill.
Alligator Bayou, by a nose.
For other reviews in this tournament, check the main blog site, here.